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Robert Van Bergen

The Norsemen (or Varingians) in Russia



It would have been strange indeed, if the bold Norsemen, the bold buccaneers who in their frail craft pillaged the west coasts of Europe and extended their voyages into the Mediterranean, should have omitted to pay a visit to the shores of the Baltic Sea. We know that they settled in England and France, and it causes no surprise when we read that the Slavs in the neighborhood of the Baltic paid tribute to them. They must have been exacting tax collectors, because we read also that, in 859, the Slavs rose and expelled their visitors. Three years later they returned at the invitation of the people of Novgorod.

Nestor, the historian of the Slav race, who lived in the twelfth century, and whose account is remarkably clear and trustworthy, wrote that the inhabitants of Novgorod "said to the princes of Varingia, 'Our land is great and fertile, but it lacks order and justice; come, take possession, and govern us.'"

The invitation was accepted. Three brothers, Rurik or the Peaceful, Sineous or the Victorious, and Truvor or the Faithful, proceeded to Russia with their families and fighting men. Rurik settled on the south shore of Lake Ladoga, Sineous on the White Lake, and Truvor at Izborsk. The two younger brothers died, and Rurik moved to Novgorod where he built a castle. At about the same time two other Norsemen, Askold and Dir, landed in Russia, and went to Kief, then also a flourishing city, where they were equally well received. They persuaded its people to prepare an expedition against Czargrad, the City of the Czar or Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, now known as Constantinople, but at that time named Byzantium. The expedition of Kief under Askold and Dir sailed down the Dnieper in a fleet of 200 large boats, entered the Golden Horn—or Bosphorus,—and began the siege of Constantinople. The capital was saved by the Patriarch or head of the Greek Church, who plunged a wonder-working robe into the waves, whereupon a violent storm destroyed the Russian fleet.

The two chiefs, Askold and Dir, must have escaped, because they were back at Kief when that city received a disagreeable visit. Upon Rurik's death, he was succeeded, not by his son Igor, but by his brother Oleg as the eldest of the family. The new prince or kniaz  did not approve of rival Norsemen in his neighborhood. With his own men and a large number of Slavs and Finns, he marched upon Kief, and on his way compelled Smolensk and Loubetch to submit to his authority.

When he arrived before Kief, he succeeded in capturing Askold and Dir who were put to death "because," Oleg explained, "they were neither princes themselves, nor of the blood of princes." Kief was taken, and Oleg took up his residence in that city.

It is at this time that the name Russia first appears. Its derivation is doubtful and is, besides, of no great importance. Oleg ruled over Russia, that is, the plain extending from Kief to Novgorod. There is a story that he was defeated by the Hungarians, who had crossed the Dnieper, but it is doubtful, because in the year 907, we find him preparing another expedition against Constantinople. On this occasion the people of that capital forgot to bring out the robe, and tried to poison the invaders, but their scheme was discovered in time; they were forced to pay a heavy tribute and Oleg secured, besides, a very advantageous commercial treaty.

One of the wizards at Oleg's court had warned him that his favorite horse would be the cause of his death, and the animal was kept away from him until it died. Oleg did not believe in wizards; he insisted upon seeing the body and entered the stable. A snake came out of the horse's skull and stung Oleg in the foot, and he died from the effect of the poison.

Igor, Rurik's son, was the eldest, and succeeded his uncle. He led another expedition against Constantinople, but it ended in disaster, because the Russian fleet was destroyed by Greek fire. A large number of Russians were captured but Igor escaped. This failure did not prevent him from again attacking the Byzantine Empire, and this time he was successful. The emperor agreed to pay tribute and signed another commercial treaty.

Nestor, the Russian historian, tells us the story of Igor's death. "In the year 945," he says, "the drujina"  (that is, the body-guard, composed of Norsemen or their descendants), "of Igor said to him, 'The men of Sveneld are richly provided with weapons and garments, while we go in rags; lead us, Prince, to collect the tribute so that thou and we may become rich.' Igor consented, and conducted them to the Drevlians to raise the tribute. He increased the first imposts, and did them violence, he and his men; after having taken all he wanted, he returned to his city. While on the road he bethought himself and said to his drujina, 'Go on with the tribute; I will go back and try to get some more out of them.' Leaving the greater part of his men to go on their way, he returned with only a few, to the end that he might increase his riches. The Drevlians, when they learnt that Igor was coming back, held council with Nal, their prince. 'When the wolf enters the sheepfold he slays the whole flock, if the shepherd does not slay him. Thus it is with us and Igor; if we do not destroy him, we are lost.' Then they sent deputies who said to him, 'why dost thou come anew unto us? Hast thou not collected all the tribute?' But Igor would not hear them, so the Drevlians came out of the town of Korosthenes, and slew Igor and his men, for they were but a few."

The drujina or body-guard of the duke was at the same time his council. The men composing it were considered as members of his family; they ate at his table and shared his amusements as well as his toil. He did nothing without consulting them, and was really but the first among his peers. They formed a court of justice, and it was from among them that he appointed the voievods or governors of fortresses, and possadniks or commandants of large towns. We have a description of the courts of that time by an Arab writer named Ibn Dost. He says: "When a Russian brings a complaint against another, he summons him before the court of the prince where both state their case. When the prince has pronounced his verdict, his orders are executed; but if both parties are dissatisfied, the dispute must be decided by weapons. He whose sword cuts sharper, gains his cause. At the time of the fight, the relatives of the two adversaries appear armed, and surround the space set apart. The combatants then come to blows, and the victor may impose any terms he pleases."

The people of the country, the peasants, were not quite so free as when Rurik landed. They began to be known as moujik, a contemptuous diminutive of the word mouj or man, literally manikin. The merchants or gosti  did not form a distinct class, but in larger cities, such as Novgorod and Kief, they had a voice in the administration. These cities had a vetché or municipal council which directed the city's business without any direct interference from the prince. The successors of Rurik attended to the defense of the country, the administration of justice, and the collection of tribute and taxes, which sources of revenue were appropriated by them and served for their support and for that of the drujina.

The Slavs of that time exhibited many characteristics which we recognize in the Russians of our time. Leo the Deacon, a noted writer of that time, mentions that they fought in a compact body, and seemed like a wall of iron, bristling with lances, glittering with shields, whence rang a ceaseless clamor like the waves of the sea. A huge shield covered them to their feet, and, when they fought in retreat, they turned this enormous buckler on their backs and became invulnerable. The fury of the battle frenzied them. They were never seen to surrender. When victory was lost they stabbed themselves, for they believed that those who died by the hand of an enemy were condemned to serve him in the life after death. The emperors of Byzantium were glad to secure their services, and the ross, as they called them, often formed the body-guard. In the Byzantine expedition against Crete, 700 Russians served in the army.

The Norsemen readily adapted themselves to the habits, customs, and language of the people among whom they settled. We find the Norse names of Rurik, Oleg, and Igor, but after the last named their descendants were Russians and bore Russian names.

At Igor's death his son Sviatoslaf was still a minor, whose mother, Olga, became Regent. She was a woman of determination, whose first thought was to avenge the death of her husband. The Drevlians, hearing of her preparations, sent two deputations to appease her: not a man returned. They were all put to death at her command. Nestor tells us that Olga herself commanded her warriors at the siege of Korosthenes, and that she offered to make peace on payment of a tribute of three pigeons and three sparrows for every house. This was accepted and the birds were delivered, when she ordered lighted tow to be fastened to their tails, and when they flew back to the wooden town, they set fire to the houses and barns. Korosthenes was then captured and a great number of its inhabitants were slaughtered and the rest were made slaves.

It seems strange that such a woman should have been the first of Rurik's house to embrace Christianity. There is no doubt that she visited Constantinople where she astonished the emperor by the force of her character. She was baptized and received the name of Helen. It is quite possible that she came to Constantinople for that purpose, because we read that she refused to be baptized at Kief "for fear of the pagans." This confirms the Greek records in which it is stated that a bishop was established in Russia, probably at Kief, in the time of Oleg.

It is not strange that Christianity should have taken root in Russia after the frequent wars with the Byzantine Empire, and considering the commerce carried on between Kief and Constantinople. Missionaries entered Russia at an early period. Two of them, Cyril and Methodius, prepared a Slavonic alphabet, in which many Greek letters were used, and the Bible was translated into that language. There is a tradition that Askold was baptized after his defeat at Constantinople, and that this is the reason why the people still worship at his tomb at Kief, as of that of the first Christian prince. The Norsemen had no taste for persecution on account of religious belief, but for themselves they clung to the heathen deities. When Igor swore to observe the treaty concluded with Emperor Leo VI, he went up to the hill of Perun and used the ancient Slavonic rites; but the emperor's deputies went to the church of St. Elias, and there laid their hands upon the Bible as a token of good faith.

The drujina and warriors did not take kindly to Christianity. They, as well as the peasants, preferred to worship Perun and Voloss. The same thing happened elsewhere. Christianity made the greatest progress in cities, whereas the dwellers on the "heath" remained "heathen." "When one of the warriors of the prince wished to become a convert," says Nestor, "he was not prevented; they simply laughed at him." When Olga returned from Constantinople, she was anxious that her son, who was of age and had succeeded to his father, should follow her example. Sviatoslaf refused; "my men will laugh at me," was his usual answer. Nestor mentions that he sometimes lost his temper. Christianity did not make much progress during his reign.

He was a warrior, like his Norse ancestors. In the brief time of eight years, 964-972, he found time to wage two wars. The first was with the Khazar empire on the Don. Sviatoslaf captured its capital, the White City, and received tribute from two tribes of the Caucasus. The second war did not turn out so well.

From Nestor's account and that of Leo the Deacon, it appears that the Byzantine emperor, wishing to make use of Sviatoslaf, decided to find out what sort of man he was. He therefore sent him presents of gold and fine clothes, but the grandson of Rurik would scarcely look at them and told his warriors to take them away. When the emperor heard this, he sent him a fine sword and other weapons; these were accepted with every token of satisfaction by Sviatoslaf. When the emperor was informed of the result, he exclaimed: "This must be a fierce man, because he despises wealth and accepts a sword as tribute."

This did not prevent the emperor, who had a private quarrel with Peter, Czar of Bulgaria, from urging Sviatoslaf to make war upon his enemy. The Russian gave a hearty consent, and in a very short time he captured several fortresses and Peréiaslaf, the capital, fell into his hands. He determined to transfer his capital there, and when he returned to Kief, the told his mother of the city on the Danube. "The place," he said, "is the central point of my territory, and abounds in wealth. Precious goods, gold, wine, and all kinds of fruit, come from Greece. Silver and horses are brought from the country of the Czechs and Hungarians, and the Russians bring money, furs, wax, and slaves."

Meanwhile the emperor of Constantinople was dead; his successor, John Zimisces was a very different man, who preferred having a weak Bulgarian ruler as his neighbor, instead of an empire which, even at that time, extended from Lakes Ladoga and Onega to the Balkans. He, therefore, made up his mind to oust the Russians. Sviatoslaf had left Bulgaria, but he returned and reconquered it, when he received a demand from the new emperor to execute the treaty entered into with his predecessor, that is, to leave Bulgaria. Sviatoslaf replied proudly that he expected to visit the emperor at Constantinople before long, but Zimisces, a brave and able man, took measures to prevent it. Before Sviatoslaf expected him, Zimisces attacked and defeated the Russians in the defiles of the Balkan, and soon after stormed and captured Peréiaslaf. Eight thousand Russians withdrew into the castle, which they defended heroically. They refused to surrender and, when the castle was set on fire, they perished in the flames.

When Sviatoslaf heard of this disaster, he advanced against the emperor. The Greek historian says that the Russian army was 60,000 men strong, but Nestor gives the number at 10,000. The two armies met and both fought with desperate valor, but at last the Russians gave way before the furious charges of the Greek cavalry—the Ironsides—and withdrew to Dorostol. Zimisces started in pursuit, and laid siege to the city where the same courage was displayed. After Sviatoslaf drew his men up out of the city and prepared to give battle, Zimisces proposed to him to decide the issue by a personal fight, but the offer was declined. "I know better than my enemy what I have to do," said Sviatoslaf. "If he is weary of life, there are a thousand ways by which he can end his days." The battle ended in defeat for the Russians who, Leo the Deacon tells us, left 15,500 dead, and 20,000 shields on the battlefield. Sviatoslaf was compelled to come to terms. Zimisces permitted him and what remained of his army to return to Russia, after he had sworn by Perun and Voloss that he would never again invade the empire, but would help in defending it against its enemies. If he broke his oath, he wished that he might "become as yellow as gold, and perish by his own arms." Zimisces showed the nobility of a brave man. He sent messengers to a warlike tribe requesting a free passage for the Russians; but this tribe was anxious to seize the opportunity. Sviatoslaf and his men were attacked near the Cataracts of the Dnieper; he was killed, but most of his men escaped. (a.d. 972.)